With women making up a mere 29 per cent of MPs, politics can sound like an all boys Sixth Form common room, filled with overconfident, overprivileged jeering male voices, even at the best of times.
And this seems to be even more true when it comes to the issue of the European Union, and whether or not the UK should leave. As soon as David Cameron announced the referendum, the debate around membership, something that will affect the lives of us all in a myriad of ways, was hijacked by the political ambitions of one of those overconfident, overprivileged sixth formers, masquerading as a man, complete with booming voice and terrifying levels of self-belief. Enter stage right: Boris Johnson.
Within hours of David Cameron setting the date for the 23rd June, a crowd of journalists camped outside BoJo's home. Will he or won’t he? Days passed. And the “Will he or won’t he support Cameron’s plea to stay in?”, turned to “Will he or won’t he become the next leader of the Tory party?”. Never mind the plight of small business, the impact on trade, questions of independence, the opportunity for the free movement of people. The media had one question for one man.
'Women find the Boris and Dave show, and the jockeying around the future leadership of the Conservative party, boring and irrelevant.'
And as a result, women are feeling increasingly alienated around the debate, not only because it does not seem to be about how this decision will impact on our day-to-day lives, but because it is about the politics, and the politics is about men. (And before anyone says anything, of course women are interested in politics – they are just particularly turned off by an all male debating society which has had the same members since school.)
Labour MP Mary Creagh points to research by pollster Deborah Mattinson which “highlights women’s frustration at the nature of the discussion. They see and hear too few women in the campaign”. Creagh continues that the research suggests women find “the Boris and Dave show, and the jockeying around the future leadership of the Conservative party, boring and irrelevant.”
And as Creagh rightly points out, alienating women from the conversation, a quarter of whom are still undecided, could have some very real results, far beyond W1. In some ways it could decide the result – and the future of Europe. Creagh writes “If the vote becomes a referendum about a Westminster elite looking after its own political ambitions versus a grassroots anti-politics uprising, the risk of a vote for Brexit grows higher”.
Creagh wants to stay in. She highlights how leaving Europe would affect Britain’s vast fashion industry that employs mostly women. She mentions how work supporting vulnerable women, such as working against FGM, is a European fight and works better as a collective. She refers to the opportunity for young people to be able to study in Europe and prosper.
Whatever way you choose to vote, the conversation around the referendum has to change. Men bickering with men in newspapers, on the radio, in parliament, will turn off half this country’s voters. Because by making Europe a conversation about Boris, about a split Tory party, about the politics of the powerful few, we’re making this a conversation about men. And in the process we’re creating a culture where women (and the not-so- powerful men) feel disenfranchised, disengaged and ignored.
Europe is not a conversation for the Westminster old boys club, it’s a conversation for us all. Mary Creagh has dragged the conversation out of the hands of squabbling sixth formers and offered it up to everyone. If only that’s what all our politicians were doing.